Starting a business during COVID-19
I wanted to share what it was like going through the pandemic while running a startup business as I believe it is one of the many unique perspectives of what life is like during COVID. Obviously the experience for every business owner is dramatically different, but here is what it was like at Voyage Pro, told chronologically.
January and February 2020
Like many, I started off 2020 at a New Years Eve Party. I remember people asking me about this new business I had started. At the time, Voyage Pro was about 1.5 years old and just beginning to become fully functional. Over the previous 18 months I had worked day in and day out to recruit employees, build the fundamentals, get filming equipment, and create some amazing foundational videos that we could showcase to interested clients. The first week of January we promoted one of our part time employees to full time. This was our first ever full time employee and it was a really significant milestone. Morale was very high all across the board. At the time we had a 1,000 square foot office and an insane drive to scale. The beginning of 2020 also marked when we first started running ads. We were so excited! The rest of January and February were off to a good start considering how new we were at marketing ourselves, and then March came.
We had a couple of big contracts in March such as filming for a 3 day event for a very large company. At the time that project would be our biggest signing so far in 2020. Unfortunately, they would become our first lost project due to this new virus. Losing that contract was a really big eye opener for the team. I remember opening the email from the client saying they had to cancel and just feeling crushed. We were shocked and didn’t understand why they were being so cautious about this unknown threat of a virus that had barely any cases at the time in the US, let alone Arizona. Obviously we learned very quickly that they were right in canceling the event. During the mid to end of March all of our projects and contracts were frozen between the panic going on around the country. Specifically, about 20 active projects were just up in the air, halfway edited, or planned, or just signed waiting on further notice.
Nobody really knew what to do and we all assumed this would pass in a couple weeks to a month tops. I remember at the time being on a city of Tempe emergency Zoom call for local business owners where a council was going over lending options with bad interest rates and everyone was freaking out on the call saying they were going to go bankrupt. That was a tense Zoom chatroom and I was scared.
Luckily the PPP loan came several months later (more on that soon). Here’s where a silver lining came in an unexpected way: After going almost 2 years straight working 10-20 hour days, 7 days a week on projects it was so strange to me to just have nothing to work on in March.
I took advantage of this isolated time to really focus on advancing our website (which as the time needed the help, a lot) and also learning as much as I could about Google SEO and Google search ads. I pretty much lived in the office for those 2 weeks as my COVID safe zone and focused in on marketing improvements. If it wasn’t for that unexpected two weeks of free time I don’t know if I ever would have gotten around to progressing our marketing. These marketing improvements would end up pushing us to a new level over the next several months.
April of 2020 was a small improvement. Our staff was working again, mostly remote, and we had signed several projects. We were fortunate that the project management side of operations could pretty much be completely done remotely. For us, there were 2 things that absolutely could not be done remotely: #1 the actual film shoots, and #2 editing the videos (because we needed our server hard wired in).
As April progressed our staff started to organize and regain structure. Our filming crew was now mandated to wear masks at all times during shoots.
Through all the Zoom calls, phone calls, and email strings, we managed to rebrand Voyage Pro as a solution to certain problems created by COVID. Our main solution we could provide was helping businesses go virtual using video production. We would add to our website and social media things such as virtual property tour options for the real estate industry, company update videos for those small businesses that wanted to share COVID updates with their customers, remote product shoots where clients would ship us their products for a video, etc. Our biggest game changer for 2020 was the addition of live-streams as one of our services; something that we knew very little about at the time, but had the equipment for it to work. I knew that live-streams would be needed now more than ever as all events were virtual. I had the team watch many videos to learn how live-stream worked and developed a streamlined operation for it. At the end of April I flew back to Minnesota to open a new business account to help become approved for this fancy new loan the government was offering to small businesses.
May was a very cool month and one that changed the course of Voyage Pro long term. The reason was that we were approved for the PPP loan. For those that don’t know the PPP loan is given by the government to businesses who can claim they were affected by the pandemic. If the business spends the right amount on things such as labor the loan will turn into a grant. Literally free money! Luckily Voyage was approved for the first round of the PPP loan. We were able to receive a large portion of money. But there was a catch, I had to spend it all in 8 weeks, on labor. Otherwise the money would not be forgiven and turn into a loan.
So I promoted 4 additional employees to full time. That meant we now had 5 full time staff. This actually worked very well, so well I was utterly shocked. I had an idea to create an ad that showcased someone in their home quarantined and they would talk about how easy it was to use Voyage Pro services remotely to increase their sales online.
June and July 2020
Our sales were up so much at the end of Spring and we had many long term contracts signed that I upgraded our business into a brand new renovated office 3 times bigger than the one we currently had. If I would have known that was possible back in March of 2020 I would have been shocked. It’s amazing how dynamically things changed during COVID. Our website was improving more and more, marketing was getting better, all direct project operations were fully delegated for the first time. I literally didn’t have to be involved with any project if I didn’t want to. I was there to help improve us and oversee everything from new marketing ideas, to finance, to contract updates, etc. I really felt like a CEO and it was amazing, this was significant for me because I had lost about 18 pounds of weight by starting a business over the course of its first 2 years. I was already skinny before I started Voyage Pro. Running a company is so stressful and takes up so much of your time and mental health that I had no time to eat at the beginning. By mid summer of 2020 I was finally getting my weight and sanity back. Things were exploding. Our staff was killing it!
August was the month where we had somewhat of a crash from our explosion in May June and July. Early Summer set us up to have the labor infrastructure to handle a massive amount of signings. But what happened if things slowed down? In August of 2020 I did not have the software yet in place to automate project management, so it was all dependent on labor to manually handle every aspect of every project using Google spreadsheets and gmail. This took a lot of time and was expensive on the labor budget. Here’s my theory on why things got chaotic in August for sales: Arizona was not initially one of America's hotspots for the virus.
By the mid to end of the summer we were. This is when things got really wishy washy all around. Our business gets the majority of its income from other businesses, so when the wave hit here some were increasing their marketing costs while others were cutting it out completely. It was very dynamic and unpredictable. Sales were all over the place. August was a real eye opener. Because of August I began investing time and diverting income into software to help replace some of our most expensive operations to help decrease our expenses. This took many months and I will circle back around to the results.
September was better than August but not as good as the summer in sales. There was one really cool thing that happened in September that helped put us back on the map and boost morale again:
We were working with a really big name client with almost 8 million subscribers on Youtube. That was really cool for the whole team. We love all of our projects but working with a bigger name was really thrilling. Through the remainder of September I was in a state of observation. Waiting to see what the fall would bring and how Arizona’s economy would react to the increased COVID cases. It was still a mess like August but more of a controlled mess, similar to how March of 2020 was bad and April 2020 was a little better and more organized.
October and November 2020
By this time, one of our producers was given the position of the COVID manager, helping to make decisions on what to do with every scenario that can happen in these times such as an exposure, an increase in state cases, new mandated orders, etc. I think one of the hardest parts about Coronavirus for every business is keeping up with the massive supply and demand changes that were happening because the world was changing and culture was reacting at such a quick rate. Even the stock market was going crazy... Back to company updates: October was record breaking for us. Beating the summer months in sales. Even better yet, November was better than October. We were generating numerous recurring clients, big ticket recurring clients. It was good but felt weird at the same time. I didn’t get my hopes nearly as high as when we exploded at the beginning of the summer. I had trust issues because of August, so I tried to cut back as much as I could on labor just in case we got slow again. COVID aside, December is typically slow for us because of the holidays. And so it was in 2020 as well.
By the end of 2020 there were talks of another round of PPP loans coming in to help out businesses in America. I unfortunately found out very quickly that a business had to show at least 25% less in revenue in 2020 than in 2019 on their Schedule-C, which was not the case at all for us so we couldn’t qualify for the 2nd round of the loan.
Based on the experience from the March 2020 sales drought I used another 2 weeks around the Winter Holidays to allocate my time on nothing but automating and standardizing operations. We developed a 248 page company handbook that has over 40 chapters in it. We also invested thousands into software to help automate tasks that would normally take us hours to do. Keep in mind we still had 5 full time employees throughout this whole time period.
Quarter 1 2021
I’m going to summarize up 2021: The beginning of 2021 has been a steady increase in sales after the December drought, as we have strategically doubled our advertising investment into advanced Google ads and SEO improvements, and automated much of our project management operations using really fancy software for larger businesses that replaces a lot of intense manual labor hours.
Compared to a year ago it saves us about 5-6 labor hours per day every day and has no errors. We have a WAY better website than a year ago, I cannot express how much of a help that has been for our sales. Our operations, office, and staff are stronger than ever with way better resources at their hands. We have worked with some really big name clients over the past year which really helped to put us on the map. For the first time in the company's existence we really have a groove and cadence of how things must be run thanks to our handbook. Many of the improvements I listed above would not have evolved as fast if it weren’t for the pandemic forcing me and the team to always be on our toes and progress fast to keep up with all the crazy changes.
Our COVID Grant
Because of how impactful the initial PPP loan was on our business and the missed opportunity for Voyage and many other business to receive the 2nd round of the loan I had an idea in January of this year to allow for a grant of our own services to be given to local Arizona businesses where they can win free and discounted videos from us to help increase their sales. This has been a really big success.
We are optimistic that Q2 of 2021 will be a better environment for the world with COVID as the vaccine continues to rollout. Most importantly we grew from the experiences that 2020 brought and have a better understanding as to what the market really can benefit from now.
What I can say from going through COVID as a startup is you have to be ready to roll with the punches and hope the dice land in your favor. There is a new polarizing factor that will not go away anytime soon: Those that can adapt and have a business in an industry that can handle remote working and an isolated and online sales structure will succeed. It isn’t fair what the Coronavirus has done, some amazing businesses have been forced to close their doors for reasons 100% out of their control. It is a mess that has slowly been polished into a shiny mess over the last 12+ months. What I can say on a positive note is I believe some really cool things will rise from the ashes, similar to how Uber, Airbnb, and others came to fruition after the 2007 recession. Hard times force innovation.